Credit: William Frederking

When I was a kid and my friends insisted on playing house, I never wanted to be the mom, the dad, the child, or the baby. I wanted to be the dog.

For one thing, that meant I didn’t have to talk. Much later in life I also understood that, as the dog, I didn’t have to take on a stereotyped gender role or be the dominant parent or the submissive or rebellious child. Even now, I’m uncomfortable with ballet because of its hierarchies and rigid definitions. Men do barrel turns, women do chainés.

So I’m a natural fan for Rachel Damon’s Factor Ricochet, a provocative new piece that aims to break down hardened gender identities and call into question the bulwarks we set up to repel thoughts about ourselves that don’t fit our self-concept. Her project, like William Blake’s in Songs of Innocence and Experience, is to inhabit the vast worlds within, however foreign they seem.

That may sound lofty, but Factor Ricochet doesn’t come across that way. Often humorous and matter-of-fact, its stream of body language elicits an exhausting, exhilarating involvement in the moment as the four dancers’ identities and interactions continually slide into new territory. Watching the piece is like seeing a play stripped down to reveal the underlying emotions that drive conflict and resolution—the bedrock of character, defined by actions rather than sexuality, politics, or class.

This radical deconstruction is achieved partly through improvisation, which was used in the development process for Factor Ricochet and also figures in the performance. Eighteen months ago Damon started working on her own improvisation with a coach, Kristina Fluty. Then, last May, she and the other dancers started improvising together, with occasional input from Fluty, to get at the unrecognized personas within them. The resulting movement mixes mime and body language—including facial expressions—with more ambiguous motions. For people watchers, this hour-long work is a feast.

Ironically, Factor Ricochet often suggests playing house. Lots of the movement is rooted in activities like cooking, cleaning, grooming, and dressing. And the design team has made the cavernous Park District space feel homey, with touches like the floor lamp that lighting designer Richard Norwood has placed near the audience. The dancers double as stagehands, spinning Grant Sabin’s three wheeled walls through the performance area to redefine it. Mottled white and gray on one side (a color scheme echoed by Collin Bunting’s costumes), they’re painted with abstracted scenes of home on the other. Russel Weiss’s sound design, mixed live, not only ties the sections together but creates emotional backdrops for what we’re seeing.

And what we’re seeing can be harrowing. You don’t have to be a dance expert to find aggression, manipulation, and the cruelty of real or feigned indifference in Factor Ricochet. Damon and the dancers also sometimes seem to nurture one another—but their actions can be indistinguishable from efforts to dominate. Helping someone dress can seem domineering, comforting, or both.

Most sections of the piece suggest that we all cycle in and out of roles. Performers “tap in” to replace others in a repeated scenario where one person stands and jabs a finger into a tabletop while glaring at another who looks down—clearly the person being lectured. A couple passages consist mostly of two people trading the word “OK” back and forth, varying their body language and intonation as they go. A whole rainbow of subtly colored motives and emotions can be packed into those two supposedly agreeable syllables.

Other sections, especially the solos, seem meant to define some aspect of an individual performer. The only male dancer, Marc Macaranas movingly expresses the rigidity and fortress mentality men so often seem forced to maintain—as well as their opposites, fluidity and openness. Adriana Durant combines the feminine and masculine by sitting in a yoga pose while driving her fists into the floor like an ape defending its territory. Writing on an invisible chalkboard to a voiceover of a man chanting page numbers, Ni’Ja Whitson expresses something didactic, hard-edged, and stereotypically male. Damon’s own solo repeats an earlier section’s mysterious, delicious moves: eyes closed, hips, arms, and head slowly swaying.

Still, Factor Ricochet emphasizes role-playing over individuality—which I find seriously disconcerting, like wading into water and having the ground fall away beneath my feet. But the end of the piece uncovers a new, communal substratum for human interaction, a magical, oceanic world where breathing, singing, swimming, and dancing form the safe, blissful continuum that unites us.